AMMAN: A US-backed alliance of Syrian militias launched a new offensive against fighters of the militant Islamic State (IS) group near their de facto capital of Raqqa city on Tuesday, a monitoring group and an official said.
The Syria Democratic Forces (SDF) alliance is the main Syrian partner for the US-led alliance battling IS which controls large areas of northern and eastern Syria. The alliance’s most powerful component is the Kurdish YPG militia.
Aided by US-led air strikes, the YPG has driven IS from wide areas of northern Syria over the last year or more, though its advances have recently slowed.
There has been no indication of when a full assault on Raqqa city might take place. A Kurdish official declined to say whether the city was a target of the latest offensive.
Syrian Kurdish groups have previously said an attack on the predominantly Arab city of Raqqa should be led by Arab militias. Syria experts say the SDF’s Arab groups are not yet ready for such an attack, however.
Ground operation backed by air strikes carried out by jets belonging to a US-led coalition
An unspecified number of SDF fighters were seen moving south from their stronghold of Tel Abyad near the Turkish border towards Ain Issa, a town about 60km northwest of Raqqa city, and clashes were reported nearby, the Syrian Observatory for Human Rights monitoring group said.
The ground operation was accompanied by a series of air strikes on militant hideouts in the area carried out by jets belonging to a US-led coalition.
The attack follows a recent visit to northern Syria by US Central Command Commander General Joseph L. Votel, the highest-ranking US military official to visit Syria since the war erupted in 2011.
Neither Washington nor its allies have indicated they are about to embark on a campaign to retake Raqqa or Mosul city, the other main stronghold of the militants in Iraq.
Raqqa city sits in the centre of the province of the same name, which borders Turkey to the north.
During his visit, Votel met some SDF commanders as well as US troops who are training the force, the US Defence Department said.
The SDF have driven IS from wide areas of northern Syria and in February captured the town of al Shadadi, a major logistics hub for the militants that was connected by a network of highways in Hasaka province. Its capture had further isolated Raqqa.
IS’s territory in Iraq and Syria has shrunk significantly from its peak. The group is also being targeted in a separate campaign by the Syrian military and its allies, including Russia.